Cyntoia Denise Brown didn’t have the easiest start in life. She was born in Tennessee in 1988 to a 16 year old alcoholic mother named Georgina Mitchell and an absent, unknown father. Her teenage mother drank alcohol heavily throughout her pregnancy causing Cyntoia to be born with an Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder, specifically, fetal alcohol spectral disorder. Due to the impact the disorder has on a child’s cognitive and psychological development those diagnosed with having FASD are more likely to have trouble with the law. They are also more likely to fall into addiction, substance abuse and risky behavior and are more at risk of having issues with mental illness. There is no cure for FASD and symptoms persist well into adulthood and thereafter.
After giving birth, Georgina began smoking crack cocaine and fell into prostitution as a means to fund the inevitable addiction. Her habit rendered her unable to care for her child so she put Cyntoia’s fate into the hands of others. She intermittently attempted to take her child back from the temporary care, but due to the severity of her addiction and general instability she always wound up handing Cyntoia off to someone else. Because of this, the child was left with abandonment issues.
Growing up, Cyntoia never had a stable home. Not only was her life uprooted several times but she passed from caregiver to caregiver and fell victim to abuse. A research synthesis written for the urban institute in 2013 titled “The Negative Effects of Instability on Child Development” highlights the life-long effects on children who are forced to grow up in unstable environments. The paper states that many children who face upheaval, an absence of positive adult influence, lack of bonds, constant feelings of instability and abuse are likely to be affected long into adulthood. The paper goes on to detail that such situations affect the child’s education (issues keeping good grades often leading to absence and dropping out with no chance of further education), social skills, vocabulary (leading to issues with reading comprehension and understanding definition) and behavioral issues (acting out, etc.) A child raised in such an environment is also very likely to develop mental health issues.
Cyntoia didn’t do well in care. She acted out and was sent to a juvenile correctional facility for “crimes against property and person”. She eventually ended up at Woodland Hills Youth Development Center.
She was later adopted into yet another troubled household with an alcoholic step father who was a less than desirable father figure. He would regularly berate Cyntoia and taunt her by telling her that she was going to end up a drug addict and prostitute like her mother before her. The troubled girl was not permitted to see her biological mother and the letters and correspondence sent to her was withheld in an effort to protect her. This did not help her abandonment issues and with no knowledge that her mother was attempting to show love and care from afar, Cyntoia went on feeling unloved and devalued.
Opting for the streets over the home of her adoptive family she eventually wound up getting involved with an older man named Garion L. McGlothen, known on the streets as “Kut Throat”.
She found herself in a relationship with 24 year old Kut Throat who she says plied her with drugs and eventually forced her into prostitution; a plan he benefited generously from as he used the money she made to support himself. According to Brown, she was choked, beaten, abused, raped and threatened at gun point to strip and sleep with strange men under McGlothen's demands. He forced the girl out onto the streets, acting as her pimp, and lived off the money that she brought in. Cyntoia Brown had once again found herself being abused at the hands of an adult when all she was looking for was love and stability.
When later asked about their relationship Cyntoia said “We were either getting high or having sex, that’s all we ever did”.
By definition, Cyntoia had been trafficked. The Polaris project writes:
“Sex traffickers use threats, manipulation, lies, debt bondage, and other forms of coercion to compel adults and children to engage in commercial sex acts against their will. Under U.S. law, any minor under the age of 18 years induced into commercial sex is a victim of sex trafficking — regardless of whether or not the trafficker used force, fraud, or coercion. The situations that sex trafficking victims face vary dramatically. Many victims become romantically involved with someone who then forces or manipulates them into prostitution. Others are lured in with false promises of a job, such as modeling or dancing. Some are forced to sell sex by their parents or other family members. They may be involved in a trafficking situation for a few days or weeks, or may remain in the same trafficking situation for years.” (Source)
The US department defines trafficking as:
“Human trafficking can include, but does not require, movement. Under the TVPA, people may be considered trafficking victims regardless of whether they were transported to the exploitative situation, previously consented to work for a trafficker, or participated in a crime as a direct result of being trafficked. At the heart of this phenomenon is the traffickers’ aim to exploit and enslave their victims and the myriad coercive and deceptive practices they use.. Child Sex Trafficking When a child (under 18 years of age) is recruited, enticed, harbored, transported, provided, obtained, patronized, solicited, or maintained to perform a commercial sex act, proving force, fraud, or coercion is not necessary for the offense to be prosecuted as human trafficking. There are no exceptions to this rule: no cultural or socioeconomic rationalizations alter the fact that children who are exploited in prostitution are trafficking victims. The use of children in the commercial sex trade is prohibited under U.S. law and by statute in most countries around the world. Sex trafficking has devastating consequences for children, including long-lasting physical and psychological trauma, disease (including HIV/AIDS), drug addiction, unwanted pregnancy, malnutrition, social ostracism, and even death.”
Cyntoia brown could not simply walk away from the nightmarish existence that she had been forced into. Whenever she would try to leave her boyfriend-turned-pimp would threaten her with violence. When the threats weren’t enough to keep her in line he would back them up with physical blows and sexual assaults.
In a later interview Cyntoia would say: “He threatened me. He knew where my mother lived.”
One night in August of 2004 Cyntoia had been forced out to East Nashville to look for Johns near the Murfreesboro Pike- a hotspot for prostitution in the area. She was staying with Kut Throat at the “InTown Suites Extended Stay” in Antioch, Tennessee when he demanded she get to work. The pair had been staying together for around 3 weeks at this point and Cyntoia had been using cocaine and drinking alcohol regularly.
The teenager was standing in the parking lot of a Sonic drive-thru when a middle aged man in a white Ford F-150 approached her. In the driver’s seat was a 6ft tall, Caucasian male war veteran-turned-real estate broker named Johnny Mitchell Allen. He asked Cyntoia if she was hungry and homeless, to which she said yes, then, according to Brown, he asked her if she was “up for any action”. She agreed to have sex with him for $200; Allen declined and said $100 before settling on $150. Cyntoia claimed that she suggested they go to a nearby hotel, but Allen insisted that they go to his home on Mossdale Drive as he lived alone. During the drive he told her about himself and about his time as a sharp-shooter in the military. He had a gun collection displayed in a cabinet, some of which he showed her while she sat at his dining room table eating the food he had bought her earlier. He had ordered her soda, fries and a chicken sandwich, and seemed to be a regular at the fast food restaurant. Allen apparently revealed that he was financially well off and according to Brown said he was tired of “women who only wanted him for his money and was looking for a woman with desire”.
When asked what they did that night, Cyntoia described how she took a shower, ate dinner, avoided sleeping with Allen as he attempted to initiate (and told her he loved her) and watched T.V.
Cyntoia confessed that she began to feel uncomfortable following the gun tour and was nervous about the way Allen had been acting. She quickly realized that nobody knew where she was and that if anything were to happen to her nobody would ever find out. She described Allen as “weird”.
Cyntoia had been broken down by Kut Throat McGlothen for several weeks leading up to this night. He had regularly threatened her at gun point, abused her and sexually assaulted her. The teen even admitted that at one point he almost choked her to death. He told her on many occasions that she was a “worthless whore” that nobody other than him would ever want. He also got her high daily, likely leaving her in a state of hyper awareness and paranoia.
The young girl ended up in Allen’s bed, but explained that they did not go through with the sex as they had agreed earlier. As detailed in a later appeal document (here) she pretended to sleep and ignored Allen as he attempted to touch her under the covers.
The night ended with Cyntoia Brown firing a shot into the back of Allen’s skull with a gun that she claimed she carried in her purse for protection. Originally she said she had bought the gun on the street, but later admitted that she had been given it by Kut. She claimed that she killed Allen because she thought he was reaching for one of his own firearms under the bed and she thought he was going to shoot her. In her words, she “reacted”.
Terrified of returning to her pimp without cash, she went back and stole $172 from his wallet, as well as a couple of guns and his vehicle which she used to drive back into town before abandoning it and hitching a ride back to the motel.
Although just 16 years old at the time of the crime, Cyntoia was tried as an adult as the judge believed she was a danger to society and that juvenile detention centers were not equipped to deal with her.
She was interviewed by police without a lawyer present.
Despite forensic experts coming to the conclusion that Allen was sleeping when he was shot, Brown argued that it was self-defense. The victim was found with his hands under his head and the prosecution argued that Brown had gone with Allen that night with the intention of killing and robbing him. Police findings supported forensic evidence as they recorded finding Johnny Allen naked in bed in a pool of his own blood with his fingers interlocked under his head. (Source) Cyntoia told the court that Allen had been looming over her while she lay in his bed and the way he was acting made her feel nervous.
The 16 year old did admit to stealing the victim’s guns with the intention of selling them to a pawn shop as she believed they were valuable. She also confessed to taking the money from his wallet.
Brown was slapped with a 51 year sentence for first degree murder, robbery and felony murder. While serving out her sentence in the Tennessee Prison for Women she excelled with her education getting a G.E.D and working towards a Bachelors. Cyntoia was noted as having a high I.Q despite her behavioral struggles. The Lipscomb university in Tennessee teamed up with the Tennessee prison for women to offer placements on their "LIFE" program. LIFE is a course offered to incarcerated women who are referred to as "Inside students" and is associated with "The Churches of Christ". Brown told reporters that she owed her rehabilitation to God and said that without faith she wouldn't have made it. The university vouched for Cyntoia and praised her transformation. They, like many others, believe that she has truly grown and stands as a successful example of reform. They believe that the education she has received will make her a positive influence on the community upon release.
Many celebrities including Rihanna, Snoop Dogg, Cara Delevigne and Kim Kardashian West advocated for the release of Cyntoia and believe that she was a victim of child sex trafficking who was tried as an adult and thrown away for life as the result of an unjust trial and system. Had Brown been tried a child she would have faced a much different future likely in a juvenile detention center until she turned 19.
“The system has failed. Its heart breaking to see a young girl sex trafficked then when she has the courage to fight back is jailed for life! We have to do better & do what’s right. I’ve called my attorneys yesterday to see what can be done to fix this. #FreeCyntoiaBrown” Kim Kardashian West wrote in a caption on social media.
Brown has recently been granted clemency by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (after serving 15 years behind bars) and is due to be released in August 2019. This decision has sparked controversy with many believing that Brown had been justly sentenced for the murder of 43 year old Johnny Allen with others arguing that she had been trafficked as a teen and was a victim of her circumstances and the life she had been born into. Haslam pointed out the complexity of the case and reminded those questioning the decision that Cyntoia was a child who had been tried as an adult and that she too was a victim. Cyntoia will be released with conditions, including 10 years of parole supervision and mandatory regular counseling sessions.
In response Cyntoia Brown, now 30, said:
"Thank you for your act of mercy in giving me a second chance. I will do everything I can to justify your faith in me.With God's help, I am committed to live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people. My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been."
Before the decision was made, a lead detective who was assigned to the case back in 2004 wrote to Haslam pleading with him to reconsider freeing Brown. In the letter Detective Charles Robinson of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department Homicide/Cold Case Unit, said that he still believed the murder was premeditated with the sole purpose of robbing the victim. He described the crime scene detailing a single gunshot wound to the back of Allen's head, how he was lying on his right side and the bullet went through the wall and lodged into another bed in the room next door. He again detailed how the victims arms were crossed under his head with fingers interlocked in what seemed to be a sleeping position. He brought up several transactions being made on the victims credit cards after his murder and Cyntoia boasting about the crime around the motel she stayed in.
Detective Robinson went on to say that neighbors from the hotel told police that Cyntoia told him them all about the crime and claimed that she and her boyfriend had been waiting for someone like Allen to come along so they could rob him.
The letter can be read here in its entirety, but her are a few points the detective brought up in opposition to Brown being granted Clemency.
-The handgun she used to kill Allen was also used in a robbery that same year. The victim of the robbery was nightclub owner named Rachael Browning who was shot in the neck outside of a condominium building. She survived the attack but suffered paralysis, Kut throat McGlothern was a suspect in the case. (The details of the case can be read in this court document.) Robinson believes that Brown and McGlothern had a history of robbery and believes that the murder of Allen was premeditated with the intent to steal. (Kut was murdered in 2005)
-Brown admitted in a phone call to her adoptive mother that she "executed" Allen.
- Various cellmates of Brown over the years told investigators that Cyntoia confessed to her that everything was true "besides the nerves and that he was reaching for a gun".
Haslam went ahead and granted Cyntoia Brown clemency and she is set to be released August 7th 2019.
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